Edward Feser, a Catholic philosopher living in California who has written some really high quality academic books, offers at his blog the following reason for why he thinks the atheist Reason Rally this weekend will prove to be a ridiculous, oxymoronic belly-flop:
A crowd shouts, chants, emotes, and is always, always demanding this or that — it is appetitive rather than cognitive. In a crowd, the rational in rational animal is always in danger of giving way, leaving just the animal, indeed a herd of animals.
Characteristic of Edward Feser, this is a theoretically interesting argument, high-minded and subtle, for why atheists shouldn’t hold reason rallies as pushback to the ever-ubiquitous and stadium-filling faith rallies held by Evangelicals and conservative Catholics all around America every year.
But is Feser being fair in his judgment?
Does he really believe, for example, that the atheist Reason Rally is going to attract a stadium-sized crowd of, say, sixty thousand people to the Mall, shouting, chanting, emoting, and demanding?
I doubt it.
My personal bet is that the rally size will be, at best, 2,000 people. And they won’t be young. It takes high-testosterone males to generally get a good froth of obnoxious passion going in a crowd.
This will be, I suspect, a gathering of upper and upper-middle class academic and professional white males, mostly over 30, with enough time on their hands to get themselves to the Mall for a weekend to browse atheist books, audio lectures, bumper stickers, and magazine stalls—and hear Richard Dawkins and other atheist organizers and authors make blasphemous cracks from a stage microphone.
In other words, it will be like these pictures I took at the Atheist Alliance International Annual Convention, held in Burbank, California (at the Marriot Hotel Convention Center next to Bob Hope Airport), in 2009, except outdoors:
On Saturday, the signs of crowd energy will not be irrational Dionysian dancing, disorder, demanding, and chanting, but (at best) clapping, ironic laughing, and hissing. Remember, the Reason Rally is being organized by a British fellow (Richard Dawkins), so anticipate something more along the lines of Monty Python than the Hitler youth.
And can we also have some compassion here, and drop the mockery? Why can’t atheists enjoy some camaraderie and sociality, like religious people do? Isn’t it human to assemble? Why should atheists be a closeted and disorganized minority, living strictly isolated and private lives in the name of rational consistency? Feser, it seems to me, is trying to set up atheists who internalize his criticism for an emotional double-bind.
And say what you will of contemporary atheists, most of them like the right things (the Enlightenment, Barack Obama, evolution, feminism, critical thinking, doubt, empiricism, universities, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and loathe the right things (Rick Santorum, young earth creationism, fundamentalism, Islamism, postmodernism).
But Edward Feser doesn’t think most contemporary atheists have thought sufficiently about their metaphysics and epistemology to claim the mantle of reason. That’s fair. No one should act like he or she owns reason, nor pretend to start his or her reasoning absent (inherently unverifiable) metaphysical premises. We’ve all got them. Let’s acknowledge it. To be human is to gamble.
But that doesn’t mean that, say, Albert Mohler and Richard Dawkins cannot be distinguished on the matter of faith versus reason. It’s an abuse of language to lump them together as equivalently faith-based in their orientations. Epistemically, we can recognize a fundamentalist from an empiricist. Atheists are part of the doubting community; they are recognizably rational in ways that, say, Albert Mohler is not. (If Albert Mohler organized a Reason Rally, that would be silly.)
And what better place for atheists to hang out together on a spring day than Washington, D.C., which exists because of the Enlightenment? It’s refreshing.
Thomas Jefferson, were he alive in the 21st century, might well have joined the atheists on the Mall. As an agnostic, if I were in D.C. this weekend, I certainly would as well. Dawkins is a delight to listen to, and I like browsing through back-issues of Skeptic magazine. The cherry blossoms, I’m told, are blooming early this year.